Austin bar makes Esquire’s list of 24 best cocktail bars in America

Laura Skelding / American-Statesman. Half Step specializes in making classic cocktails like the Old-Fashioned. Its attention to detail has earned it a spot on Esquire’s best bars of America list.

According to Esquire, Half Step is a whole leap ahead of the rest of Austin’s watering holes.

Esquire has once again released its list of America’s best cocktail bars, and the powder blue bungalow bar on Rainey Street is at the top of it.

“Prop an elbow on the padded bar and watch your cocktail materialize from the fresh ingredients cooling on ice. Pick the bartender’s choice. Or call for the Medicina Latina, which mixes tequila, mezcal, ginger, and lime to cure what ails you,” according to the list put together by Esquire editors.

Half Step opened in early 2014 as the Texas outpost from the masterminds of the venerated Los Angeles bar the Varnish. Although there’s a menu of cocktails, Esquire is sure correct about one thing: Go with bartender’s choice for something truly tailored to your tastes. The bar team knows its booze and has a wide arsenal of drinks, both classics and modern riffs alike, from which to pull.

Once you’ve had a drink or two at Half Step, don’t call it a night: Esquire recommends heading over to fellow Rainey Street bar Craft Pride, where Texas beers and Detroit-style pizza reign supreme.

The men’s publication organized the list by city in alphabetical order, which made Half Step the first item you read. Some cities, like New York, have multiple bars featured. And Austin isn’t the only Texas city to impress: Houston also made the cut with the Southern-inspired bar Julep from cocktail maven Alba Huerta.

Agree with the publication’s recommendations? Sound off in the comments or share your opinion with me on Twitter or Instagram. My handle on both platforms is @ariauber.

The Peached Tortilla’s popular mega milkshakes to return — with doughnuts

The Peached Tortilla wowed foodies at South by Southwest with towering milkshakes piled high with brightly colored desserts like cotton candy, lollipops and doughnuts. After so much success with them, the restaurant’s event space, the Peached Social House, hosted a pop-up in April with all new ones inspired partially by breakfast.

And now, for those of us who missed out those first two times, there’s going to be yet another million-calorie mega-milkshake bonanza on June 4.

This pop-up, like the April one, will probably sell out — and you must have tickets to get a taste of it. What’s different about this time? It’s a collaboration with pastry chef Janina O’Leary, formerly of La V and Trace, who specializes in fluffy, insanely good doughnuts that show up at pop-ups around town from time to time.

Her doughnuts will top the Peached Tortilla milkshakes, which dessert lovers can taste from 12 to 3 p.m. on June 4 for $19. She will have what she calls her Play Dough pastries paired with them, too.

Contributed by the Peached Tortilla. Return to Peached Social House for another afternoon of mega milkshakes, this time topped with Pastry Chef Janina O’Leary’s famous doughnuts.

The milkshakes have been newly created for the collaboration and include the Blueberry in a Glazed State, with strawberry ice cream, graham crackers, caramel and a berry-glazed doughnut (paired with a peach poppy seed pop-tart) and the I Drink Your Milkshake, with chocolate ice cream, crushed pretzels and a malted milk chocolate doughnut (paired with Nutella swirl coffee cake).

At the pop-up, slurp down your milkshake or choose another liquid treat. The Peached Tortilla is again offering the Birthday Cake Mimosa, a popular cocktail at the last milkshake pop-up, with Frangelico, vodka, grenadine and brut. It’ll be topped with Janina’s matcha-pistachio baby cake with strawberry buttercream and paired with an Everything cookie.

Still don’t feel like your sweet tooth will be satisfied? O’Leary will also have other pastries at the pop-up that you can purchase a la carte.

Get your tickets for the pop-up this weekend at this Eventbrite link. Note that the two milkshake options are both $19 and the mimosa with a cookie are $17. The event will be at Peached Social House, at 6500 N. Lamar Blvd. Ste D.

10 Texas beers to enjoy all summer long

Texas brewers know just the kinds of beers we need to combat the heat. Here are 10 mostly Austin beers (and a cider-wine hybrid because it’s divine) to keep you cool all summer long.

Arianna Auber / American-Statesman. Brazos Valley Brewery, in Brenham, has made a peach wheat with a couple of sneaky musical references.

Austin Beerworks Einhorn: The essential summer beer of Austin was recently put into powder blue cans decorated with unicorns (‘einhorn’ means unicorn in German) and sent all over town. Crisp, a little tart and very refreshing, the Berliner Weisse-style brew might not be as rare a find as the mythical horned horse now, but it’s not any less beloved. The North Austin brewery has even helpfully supplied a map to help us locate a six-pack, although you don’t have to rush out to find it: Einhorn will be available throughout the summer.

Live Oak Hefeweizen: A lot of the beers on this list are new, seasonal or small-batch, or some combination of the three. This one’s on here because it’s trusty — easy to get both in cans and on draft and always the straw-colored, aromatic gem we expect — and we should never take it for granted. Go get some.

The ABGB’s Rocket 100 Pilsner: This one is another reliable Austin brew and one of the beers that helped to cement the ABGB’s win as the Great American Beer Festival’s Brewpub of the Year. A pre-Prohibition example of a pilsner, it’s brewed with corn, one of the ingredients that German immigrants to our country would have used. Take it home in a growler or, better yet, a three-pack of crowlers.

Hops & Grain River Beer: Modeled after light lagers like Coors Banquet, with corn in its grain bill, River Beer is intended to accompany you on all your boat rides on Lake Travis, your tubing trips down the San Marcos River, anytime you are in or over a body of water in Texas. With it, Hops & Grain is hoping to attract people who drink the likes of Coors and Budweiser, but it’s flavorful (even a little sweet, thanks to the corn) and will no doubt be the favorite of regular craft beer lovers, too.

Adelbert’s Mango Wit: As I noted in a roundup of beers suited for springtime imbibing, the year-round Mango Wit is especially suited for the spring and summer months thanks to its sweet tropical notes. Now that it’s summer, let me just go ahead and quote myself: Adelbert’s made the Mango Wit with lemon peel and real, true, juicy mango, and let me emphasize the word “juicy” again. That’s exactly how this beer tastes: as if Adelbert’s filled cans with the sweet liquid squeezed from pounds of mangoes, threw in some citrus for balance and carbonated the result.

Brazos Valley Millions of Peaches Peach Wheat: Probably, the Brenham brewery is making a reference with the name and the can design to the Allman Brothers’ “Eat a Peach” record. But the six-pack I stumbled on at Whole Foods immediately made me crack a grin because Millions of Peaches is, to me, a nod to the insanely catchy ’90s diddly “Peaches” by the Presidents of the United States of America.

I bought the cans for the memory of belting out “millions of peaches, peaches for me” the summer in between high school and college and that alone, without knowing a thing about the beer, but fortunately it’s delicious. In the wheat beer, the sweet nectar of one of Texas’ most beloved fruits is preserved without being overly cloying, a danger that some fruit beers can face.

Arianna Auber / American-Statesman. Got any outdoor summer activities planned? Don’t leave your six-pack of Oasis at home.

Oasis, Texas’ You May All Go to Helles and I Will Go to Texas: Are your Texan heartstrings tugging yet at this Davy Crockett reference (and well-placed beer pun)? Even if they’re not, the Lake Travis-area brewery has crafted a beer, light and thirst-quenching, that seems tailor-made for our state. The cans are a limited release, so don’t miss them.

Zilker Brewing’s Parks & Rec Pale Ale: Brewed in collaboration with the Austin Parks Foundation to celebrate Zilker Park’s 100th anniversary, the seasonal pale ale, now in cans, doubles as a good cause. A portion of the proceeds from the beer, made with old-school hops like Centennial to emphasize bright citrus notes, is being donated to the Austin Parks Foundation for Zilker Park’s upkeep. Not that you needed an extra reason to go buy it, right?

Arianna Auber / American-Statesman. Zilker Brewing’s newest canned beer was made to highlight Zilker Park’s 100th anniversary.

Jester King Foudreweizen: The brewery’s big and boozy Boxer’s Revenge, a a barrel-aged sour strong ale, releases this weekend, but it’s not exactly conducive to summer drinking. Buy a few bottles of that to go, since it ages so nicely, but don’t miss out on Foudreweizen. The collaboration between Jester King and Live Oak Brewing is also back and so nicely captures what both breweries do best.

It was made when wort brewed at Live Oak and inoculated with its hefeweizen yeast was taken to Jester King to transform at the hands of the native yeast and bacteria, alive in the walls of the farmhouse brewery’s foudres, and the resulting Foudreweizen tastes in essence like a funky wheat beer — bonkers good.

A crowler of Pinthouse Pizza’s latest IPA: Both locations of the brewpub are producing fresh examples of the hazy, juicy IPA they’ve perfected, from the This Is Juice at the flagship on Burnet Road to the Electric Jellyfish IPA that the South Lamar brewpub can’t seem to make enough of. IPAs generally aren’t my go-to style on hot summer days, but Pinthouse makes the beer low in bitterness, albeit with the aroma and flavors that hops can impart. Like the ABGB, both locations have crowlers.

Texas Keeper Cider’s Grafter Rosé: The best drink of 2016 is back in bottles and available at the cidery starting tomorrow afternoon, where you can sip it while enjoying barbecue from the new LeRoy and Lewis. This year’s Grafter Rosé, dry, spritz-like and tart, is made with Rome Beauty apples and Texas-grown Tempranillo and Carignan grapes.

Three of Austin’s best Bloody Mary mixes to create your own boozy brunch at home

Many summer weekends ahead mean relaxing with a drink during a long, leisurely brunch.

To that end, we’ve rounded up several Austin restaurants that serve delicious brunch cocktails — whether it’s a classic mimosa you’re seeking or something a little more off-the-wall, like Snooze’s Bacon & Eggs whiskey sour.

But you might be like me: staying in close proximity to your bed. So, if you’d rather not venture far but still want a little morning buzz (no judgment here, OK), we’ve got you covered there, too. Here are three locally made Bloody Mary mixes that you can add a little vodka to and snuggle up with.

Contributed by Barbecue Wife. Barbecue Wife Bloody Mary Mix is made locally by Catherine Stiles, who uses Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew’s special house sauce in it.

Barbecue Wife Bloody Mary Mix

The wife of Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew owner Shane Stiles, Catherine Stiles uses the restaurant’s house sauce, a light tomato-based mixture of smoked black pepper and other spices, as the not-so-secret ingredient in the mix she spent a year-and-a-half perfecting. Now, the all-natural, preservative-free Barbecue Wife is easy to find in local stores like Whole Foods and Royal Blue Grocery.

Grab this one if you want a savory punch of smoke and heat in your Bloody Mary. (Needless to say, it’s the right kind of pick-me-up the morning after a night out.)

There’s another good reason to love the product: Stiles has packed a lot of heart into it, sticking a double-sided label on the bottles that are illustrated on the inside with a picture of a “barbecue wife,” a series of strong women she feels don’t get enough representation for their hard work. You’ll have to finish the bottle to see the full image, as if you needed more incentive.

For more information, visit barbecuewife.com.

Lauren’s Garden Craft Cocktail Juice

The tagline that accompanies this local potion is “From garden to glass,” and it’s not wrong. Lauren Kelleher was inspired to make a Bloody Mary mix created from freshly squeezed tomatoes after her neighbors in Travis Heights would throw “tomato parties” during their harvests of the juicy red vegetable. At the parties, the Bloody Marys with just-squeezed juice were unlike any she’s had before.

That’s what you’ll notice with Lauren’s Garden’s four varieties of Bloody Mary mix, including Original, Texican, Lightly Seasoned Tomato Juice and Serrano Lime. They’ve all got different flavors, but their essence is the same. Lauren’s Garden Craft Cocktail Juice tastes, as one Facebook reviewer put it, like actual tomatoes were added to her Bloody Mary. Fancy that.

Bottles of each are made with three pounds of Texas tomatoes sourced from Marfa and are all-natural, vegan and non-GMO. They’re also low-calorie, so you won’t have to feel too guilty about adding just a little extra vodka (although I’d suggest a blanco tequila with the Original — the interplay of the agave and tomato is really something magical).

Find Lauren’s Garden mixes at a variety of local HEBs, Royal Blue Grocery, and Central Markets and Whole Foods statewide. For more information, visit laurensgardenmix.com/.

The Bloody Buddy

This Bloody Mary mix, from former Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse bartender Buddy Jordan, is perhaps the most conducive to a lazy day — it comes with the vodka already in it, so all you have to do is shake it and add it to a glass with some ice.

Jordan created it after noticing that there were hardly any ready-to-drink Bloody Mary mixes on the market, despite the popularity of ready-to-drink options as a whole. There also weren’t any with a boozy infusion in them. But Bloody Buddy covers that niche with a special blend of chili peppers that are infused with the vodka and then combined with juices and seasonings in a recipe he’s taken several years to get just right.

You can find bottles (in small four-packs or single large-format) at most Spec’s locations. For more information, visit thebloodybuddy.com.

Deborah Cannon / American-Statesman. Buddy Jordan, the creator of the Bloody Buddy, infuses his ready-to-mix vodka product with chili peppers.

On World Turtle Day, drink a beer, save (and meet!) a turtle or two

After a full day of tagging turtles in and around Bull Creek in an effort to study their habits and overall health, the nonprofit Turtle Survival Alliance wants to have a beer with you this evening at County Line on the Lake, a barbecue restaurant that has attracted the reptile visitors for years.

Ralph Barrera / American-Statesman. Eric Munscher, director of the North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group, will be back at Bull Creek to tag turtles for long-term research. He said the group chose the area near County Line on the Lake after hearing about the massive turtle congregation at the restaurant.

Proceeds from the beer, of course, will go toward the organization’s efforts at turtle conservation in the U.S. Hops & Grain’s River Beer, an extra premium lager aimed at attracting Budweiser fans, will be $10, with additional pours $4.

The North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group arm of the Turtle Survival Alliance noticed how plentiful the turtles living in Bull Creek have become — perhaps because customers at the County Line have been giving them snacks of the restaurant’s homemade bread for years. The group made its first research study in the area last year and have returned to do so again, according to Jordan Gray of the Turtle Survival Alliance.

People are welcome to watch the group in action as they capture turtles, including those tagged last September, to measure and weigh them, tag new ones and determine their health and sex. They’ll be released back into the water. The scientific effort will run from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. today, which not coincidentally happens to be World Turtle Day.

Afterward, join the turtle researchers and their reptile friends for Turtlemania, from 5:30 to 8 p.m., at County Line. You’ll get a souvenir pint glass with an order of the River Beer.

Here are some important facts from Gray to know about the Central Texas turtles that have so enamored County Line customers and staff over the years.

  • Texas has more species of turtles than most countries in the world, a number that totals to 37 if you count subspecies. That “puts us in a hot spot of turtle and tortoise biodiveristy,” Gray says. Central Texas specifically has about a half-dozen common here, such as the Texas map turtle, the Texas cooter, the Eastern snapping, the red-eared slider everyone is most familiar with, and a subspecies called the Guadalupe spiny soft-shell turtle.
  • Unfortunately, before the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department banned the commercial harvest of the state’s turtles in 2007, many of them had their populations dwindle because of the national and international pet and food trade. Ten years later, populations are rebounding in certain areas, while in others, other factors like fire ants and urbanization have kept their numbers low.
  • The North American Freshwater Research Group has now engaged in “long-term population monitoring in Austin, which gives us lots of valuable insight into how these turtle populations are doing in their freshwater habitats,” Gray said. In one word: well. Central Texas’ freshwater springs are filled with mollusks, snails and clams, and the turtles like to dine on them, helping to keep some of these invasive species at bay. The turtles’ heads have actually grown larger as a result of their new diet.
Arianna Auber / American-Statesman. Hops & Grain’s River Beer is on draft and now also in cans at many local restaurants, including County Line at the Lake.

Texas brewers lose legislative fight over taproom bill, headed to governor’s desk

Tom McCarthy Jr. for American-Statesman. Self-distributing breweries like Austin Beerworks will be affected by HB 3287, which just passed the Senate and now just needs Governor Greg Abbot’s pen to become law.

Texas brewers were dealt a blow this afternoon when House Bill 3287, which seeks to limit breweries that grow beyond a certain size or become owned by a larger beer company, passed the Texas Senate by a 19-10 vote.

The bill will now head to the governor’s desk to be signed into law, but the Texas Craft Brewers Guild, representing the state’s breweries, isn’t ready to give up yet and has announced that it will continue to fight against it in the hopes of a veto from Texas Governor Greg Abbott.

“This bill will put a ceiling on success for the 200+ craft breweries operating in Texas and will slow the future growth of what has become an important burgeoning manufacturing industry in our state,” the guild wrote in a statement published on Facebook shortly after HB 3287 passed.

HB 3287, pushed by wholesalers through the trade groups Beer Alliance of Texas and Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas, will change the Texas beer code in the following ways.

  • Breweries making 225,000 barrels of beer per year (a calculation that includes the amount of barrels from any affiliate brewery with a 25 percent or more stake in the company) cannot operate a tasting room.
  • There are exceptions to this rule, however. Current breweries over this limit have been grandfathered in and will still be able to keep their taproom doors open, but they and future breweries eligible for exception have to pay their distributor for all beers they sell in their taprooms. Austin’s Oskar Blues Brewery is affected, and any future taproom locations of breweries like Houston’s Karbach Brewing — now owned by Anheuser-Busch — will also have to pay up. They can have up to three tasting rooms.
  • Self-distributing breweries can only self-distribute a total of 40,000 barrels across all locations; anything above that has to be sold through a distributor. In other words, single-premises breweries like Austin Beerworks and Live Oak Brewing can only expand so much if they want to keep their independence from the wholesale tier.

Given that Texas brewers had hoped 2017 would be the year Texas allows its breweries to sell beer directly to customers for off-premise consumption, HB 3287, which they see as taking some of their rights away, has been a big blow.

“To say that today’s outcome was incredibly disheartening would be to put it mildly,” the Texas Craft Brewers Guild said it in its statement on Facebook.

But wholesalers argue that the bill prevents large multinational breweries from “gobbling up” Texas’ small craft breweries and having “access to multiple taprooms across the state,” Rick Donley, representing the Beer Alliance, said at a previous committee hearing. That sort of access would be a violation of the three-tier system.

It’s “a system that “has allowed for an incredibly competitive marketplace and allows smalls breweries to thrive in a way that other commodities can’t do because of the inability to get to market without a distribution tier,” Keith Strama, counsel for the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas, later said in the same hearing.

The only hope now for brewers to be able to sell beer to-go from their taprooms is a lawsuit that Dallas-Fort Worth’s Deep Ellum Brewing and others have lodged against the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, a case currently still tied up in the courts. Texas remains the only state in the U.S. that doesn’t permit its breweries to offer packaged beers for off-premise enjoyment.

Rosé all day with 100 wines featured at Whip In’s 6th Annual Pink Mahal

Photo by Matt McGinnis. Try a variety of different rosé wines at Whip In’s returning Pink Mahal tasting this weekend.

Rosé is red-hot, and the Whip In knows it.

The 6th Annual Pink Mahal, a celebration of rosé wine, returns this weekend with the largest selection of rosé in the city: about 100 available for tasting (although tickets will only supply you three glasses, so choose well).

Arguably, the wine and beer bar, Indian restaurant, live music venue and bottle shop in South Austin knew how good rosé is a couple of years before it became such a sought-after style of wine. (The Whip In did the same with craft beer, too, in the Budweiser-dominant 1980s and ’90s.) The wine, previously scorned as pink wine or blush wine, has achieved its near-universal popularity only in the last few years.

Rosé wine —  a style that gets more color from grape skin contact than white wine but not enough to be considered red wine — is in the midst of a heyday, especially in Texas, where the wine is a refreshing complement to our hot, hot summers. It’s not hard to guess why we want rosé all day.

In addition to coming in shades in between red and white wine, the diverse rosé is a perfect middle ground between them: able to be made with a variety of red wine grapes but resulting in a lighter body and brighter flavors more similar to white wine.

From 1 to 5 p.m. on May 20, both Whip In’s patio and wine bar will have rosé exclusively, having both large-format bottles and even some of the wine on tap. The $35 tickets get you three glasses of any of the rosé and access to an appetizer bar with “plenty of pink-friendly pairings,” according to Whip In. Additional glasses can be purchased for $5.

Don’t miss the Dandy Rosé from Rae Wilson of Wine for the People, which is helping to produce the event. Made with all Texas-grown grapes, the wine is a dry French-style rosé — an example of the delicious locally grown and produced wines that Texas excels at making.